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HORACE DANN (1896-1958)

by Philip Scowcroft


Horace Dann, Lieutenant, Royal Fusiliers, Great War



Few now remember Horace Dann and his contribution to British (and Commonwealth) music, but his work as pianist, lecturer, BBC administrator and, in a small way, composer, is worth recalling.

He was born on 20 November 1896. His father (also Horace) was a tenor singer mostly of ballads, popular in concerts either side of 1900. Eventually the young Horace accompanied his father on the piano and acquired a substantial knowledge of the song repertoire. I have seen a programme of a recital by the younger Horace (assisted by a cellist and two singers) at Addlestone Village Hall on 27 January 1913, when he played Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Sinding and a Sonata in A Flat of his own. His surviving compositions are few in number and mostly date from his last twenty years. As we shall see, he did compose other works but whether these were destroyed by him as juvenilia or are merely lost is impossible to say.

By 1912 he was studying at the Guildhall School with Carlos Sobrino (piano) and J.D. Davis (harmony). These studies were cut short soon after the outbreak of the Great War. He enlisted in the army, serving first in the ranks with the Middlesex Regiment and latterly in the Royal Fusiliers with a commission. Some of his letters from the front, to his parents or his sisters, survive, mostly from the first half of 1916, with pencilled annotations by Horace, obviously added at a later date. His hospitalisation with trench fever meant that he missed the "big push" on the Somme which began on 1 July 1916. His illness was no doubt a stroke of good fortune for him. Letters after mid-1916 have not survived, so we have no first-hand evidence of his later military career. There are some references to music in the letters we have. He had opportunities to play the piano at a YMCA hut behind the lines and he envisaged a composition "1916" with references to "the dull boom of the big guns, the chromatic whistle of flying shrapnel, the angry scream of trench mortars, the tautologous 'phut' of the maxim-gun and the weird 'ping' of a bullet". There is no evidence that he completed or even started, this, but, as we shall see, a later piece of his was to be inspired by his war service.

We next glimpse Horace on 30 March 1919 when he appeared at Le Havre in a Grand Concert in aid of the Régions Dévastées, with the Band of H.M. Royal Garrison Artillery and sundry French artistes. M. le Lieutenant Dann performed Liszt's Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody as a piano solo.

After demobilisation he resumed his interrupted studies, actually at the Royal College of Music, and it is from the immediately post-war period that his prelude Aurora came. This apparently depicted his impressions of the battlefield on the eve of the Armistice (November 1918) and, taken up as No.15 in Sir Oswald Stoll's series by young British composers, received several performances, one at the Coliseum and others by the LSO and the Queen's Hall and Royal Albert Hall Orchestras.

In 1921 Horace was appointed Professor and Lecturer at the Dutch University of Stellenbosch, Cape Province, South Africa, where he taught piano (up to LRAM and ARCM level), harmony, counterpoint, aural training and musical appreciation. During his nine years in South Africa he became Music Director of the African Theatre Group in Johannesburg, adjudicated at festivals, accompanied and gave recitals. One of his lectures, on "Modern Pedal Technique" was given at the Stellenbosch Conservatorium in August 1922. Early in his South African career he appeared as piano accompanist and soloist with the soprano Madge Allen, who sang operatic airs by Handel, Spohr and Puccini, and songs by Grieg, Dvorak and Horace himself (two: Love, to Browning's words, and the Shelley setting, Music When Soft Voices Die, which, as we shall see, achieved publication much later).

His piano solos on that occasion included Chopin and Liszt and three of his own: Aurora, described as a "Praeludium Solemnis", the "Ballet fantastique" "Walpurgis Night", described by one review as "a wild and fantastic rhapsody" and Wiegenlied. Walpurgis Night was criticised by one report as "far too long" and even Wiegenlied had "too much repetition". Such criticisms may explain why these latter two solos at least have not figured in Horace's final portfolio of compositions. Aurora may possibly, in view of its greater exposure, have been in a higher league than them, though it too has not survived and we cannot test the truth or otherwise of this supposition.

Horace clearly enjoyed South Africa. He was one of several with English connections who enhanced the musical life of the Union, others being Victor Hely-Hutchinson, W.H. Bell, Gideon Fagan and Dan Godfrey III, son of the Bournemouth Godfrey. Horace hankered after returning to the Union. Early in 1947 he applied for a lectureship there, unsuccessfully, even though W.K. Stanton and Sir George Dyson wrote references for him, and he was looking forward to a return to lecture at Stellenbosch when he died in 1958.

Between 1932 and his retirement in 1957 he worked for the BBC in various capacities. This was new territory for him, as in 1932 the BBC was only ten years old. He began in the balance and control department, soon being promoted to be one of the BBC's Directors of Light Music, in which capacity he was responsible for administration and programme research, necessitating much critical listening, sitting on audition panels and reporting on home and overseas recordings, broadcasts and public concerts. He calculated that music then (we are talking about the late 1930s) occupied 70% of the time: 33% light music, 14% symphonic music, 12% dance music and 10% records. How different from today! Those percentages are, one would think, approximately as the line between light and symphonic music was, and is, hardly precise. He naturally came to know many of the light music greats of that era; nearly forty of them clubbed together to present him on his retirement with a set of Grove's Dictionary (presumably the 1954 edition) - they included Campoli, Albert Cazabon, Harry Davidson, Walter Goehr, Fred Hartley, Jack Leon, Mantovani, Wynford Reynolds, Troise (whom Horace's daughter remembers with particular affection) and Louis Voss. During the war he moved to the Midland Region as Music Assistant (to W.K. Stanton) and became involved with the programmes of the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, formed in 1941, and programmes like "Songs for Everybody".

Horace was married twice, once while in South Africa, to a girl who had nursed him during an illness and who died after only a short time after the wedding. After his return to England he married (1934) his second wife, Beryl, who outlived him by thirty years. The union produced one daughter, Jennifer, born in January 1936. (1) Horace, Beryl and Jenny were looking forward to living in South Africa. Horace, who had some history of heart trouble, was however advised to have an operation before he went. The operation was a difficult one (less was known about heart surgery fifty years ago than it is today) and sadly led to Horace's death on 18 December 1958. His funeral at Golders Green Crematorium (24 December) was attended by many former BBC colleagues and artiste friends. Sir Adrian Boult wrote Beryl a letter of sympathy and Robert Simpson, then under 40, not merely did likewise, but composed a gentle but deeply felt Variations and Fugue for recorders and string quartet in Horace's memory, which was performed at the Wigmore Hall on 9 February 1959 by Carl Dolmetsch (who later wrote Jenny a characteristically charming letter) and the Martin String Quartet (2).

It is time for us to return to Horace's own compositions. Only six, all short, achieved publication. Two were songs: the Shelley setting of Music When Soft Voices Die, which, as we have seen, dated originally from around 1920. Publication by Paxton - possibly in a revised form - came in 1938. It is stated to be for soprano or mezzo and piano, but according to the BBC Orchestral Catalogue the accompaniment was twice transcribed for orchestra, once for piano and strings (probably by Horace himself), once for small orchestra by Hal Evans, composer of several incidental scores for BBC drama productions like A Christmas Carol, The Water Gypsies and The Four Feathers. Horace's other song, more probably describable as a ballad, was Whenever My Mary Goes By (words by Alfred Dunning), published by Boosey in February 1950 and was possibly his last composition.

First to be published (by Swan in 1936) was a piano solo, Lullaby (Berceuse), though this was orchestrated, probably by Horace, for a smallish ensemble of flute, oboe, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings. It has a pleasant lilt. In 1948 came another piano piece, The Well Tempered Polka (on a theme from Bach's 48), a pleasant jeu d'esprit, which eventually achieved publication by Curwen in July 1952.

The remaining compositions were the valse intermezzo for small orchestra (flute, two clarinets, two trumpets, trombone, strings, harp and timpani), Prima Ballerina published by Paxton in June 1938, which appears to live up to its Capriccioso marking, and the concert march, Worcester Beacon, for full orchestra, published also by Paxton, in April 1946 and performed in one of the showcase concerts in the BBC's Festival of Light Music in March-April 1949 (3). I heard this then (though not since) and was impressed by its breadth and colourful scoring. It is very much in the Eric Coates tradition and perhaps its topographical title (4) reflects an admiration for Elgar. My memory of that one performance suggests that it would be well worth revival, even recording, if the score and parts can be found - it is the only one of these six works that Jenny did not have. It is perhaps not surprising that at least four of Horace's six surviving miniatures (Worcester Beacon, at 4'30", in the composer's own timing, is the longest) are light music, when we bear in mind that he worked for the BBC during the years when its support for light music, especially British light music, was at its peak. It is perhaps a pity that he did not compose more; but he was a busy man in other musical directions and he knew, as well as anyone, that there were so many other quality composers in that particular field to fill that 33% of BBC air time that we have heard about.


1. I am greatly obliged to Jenny for producing for me so many documents and memories of her father which have made this article possible.

2. The programme note of this describes the music as "though serious and even elegiac in parts, is by no means funereal and the Fugue is light in texture, swift in pace". The recorder player is asked to use treble and, at the climax, sopranino instruments but at first he plays a subsidiary role, the theme being given to violin or viola. The theme and each of the seven variations move tonally from "a D Flat majorish - B Flat minorish region into E Minor - G Major and back again". In the turbulent last variation the sopranino recorder is pitted against the strings, the music being "pulled definitely into the key of E". The mainly quiet Fugue features the sopranino recorder showing fleetness and delicacy. At the end the music floats into a slow, gentle, rather sad, coda that settles at last in E Major."

3. On the Festival generally, see my article in the Newsletter of the Light Music Society, January 1998, pp 4-5. Dann's march opened a concert by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

4. Strictly this should be "Worcestershire Beacon".

The composer's daughter, Jenny Overton (Dann) has a 78 of her father's Worcester Beacon, another of Prima Ballerina and a recording of the Robert Simpson piece for Carl Dolmetsch - in memoriam Horace Dann.

Dann's two piano compositions are being looked at for performance at Phil Scowcroft's series of lunchtime concerts in Doncaster Museum and the song Music When Soft Voices Die; the latter probably in 2009. The parts for Prima Ballerina are being given to Ernest Tomlinson for his library of Light Orchestral Music.

Horace Dann, in his office at the BBC

Programme Coliseum (extract) noting lost composition by Dann

Prima Ballerina - score frontpage

Palais de la Bourse - concert bill



Philip L. Scowcroft

July 2008


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